Thursday, November 22, 2007

Listening, Learning

I have found that listening to my Italian friends speak English has helped me understand some things about Italian which seem quite strange to an English speaker. Let me first say that the single most difficult hurdle for me (and probably for most monolinguists) has been accepting the fact that not all things translate, no matter how illogical that may seem. However if you can just absorb the meaning, the wording begins to seem less alien. One of my teachers worded this phenomenon quite well; she said that you must first capisci il significato (understand the meaning), and then worry about the structure.

For example, in Italian you almost always have to use a definite article (like "the" in English) before a noun. There are exceptions of course, but this is the normal structure. For example:

Il mio gatto e` troppo grasso!

This means "my cat is too fat." The Italian word "il" is a definite article and translates to the English word "the". Leaving off the "il" would be grammatically incorrect and would sound strange when speaking with an Italian. However in sentences like this it doesn't make sense to translate "il" as "the", or anything else for that matter! My first reaction to this (after my initial "what the") was to simply ignore it. This allowed me to understand the meaning and still translate the sentence directly into English - and therein lies the problem. It is not possible to truly learn a language without thinking in that language, and translation makes such thought impossible.

This is where my English-speaking Italian friends come in. Let me first say that most of them speak English better than I do Italian, even though that is changing. While they speak it well enough to hold conversations it's obvious that English is not their first language. There are certain patterns to the way Italians speak English, and you're probably familiar with some of them as they have become popular stereotypes. One such stereotype is the exaggerative inflection on certain parts of words, while another is the seemingly automatic suffixation of a vowel to the end of every word. Think of how this might sound if spoken as written:

I wOUld-a lIke-a pIzza wEEth-a meatbAlls-a!

I often heard stupid things like this from my friends in the U.S. whenever I talked about moving to Italy. This is a stereotype because it is indeed true in many cases (this isn't as much a consequence of Italian as it is Latin), and it sounds goofy to native English speakers. Of course when English speakers speak Italian without inflecting properly, and certainly without rolling the Rs properly, it sounds equivalently goofy to Italians.

The pattern that has helped me truly understand and accept the definite article problem (without translating to English in my head), is how they forget to use certain pronouns (generally "it"). For example, when I am talking with one of my Italian friends in English, or watching a movie, there will sometimes be something that he doesn't understand (like a word or concept). He'll ask me to repeat the word, and then if it's new to him he will ask me:

What is?

Or if we are talking about a person that he doesn't know:

Who is?

If you were in such a conversation you would immediately know that English is not his first language. In English you have to identify who or what you are asking about either by using its name or by substitution with the pronoun "it." In Italian, you do not. Thus those phrases would be:



Chi e`?

respectively. There are no pronouns in these questions because you don't need them in Italian, so when an Italian asks those questions in English, they simply ask how they would have in Italian. This mismatch of grammatical rules is comparable to the mismatch of when definite articles are used in Italian versus when they are used in English. Such mismatches highlight the illogical nature of language, and that is a fact that is better learned and accepted early on. Indeed the grammar of a language is often mathematical, but every language is riddled with exceptions to the point where one can't realistically say it's logical.

Hearing my friends make these mistakes underscores a simple truth: that language is often illogical and understandable not only by adherence to its grammar, but also by shared cultural and social understandings.